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Eight Forty-Eight

Ellen Blum Barish Creates the Perfect Card

The holidays are coming fast. And that means your mailbox may be filling up with something other than bills and catalogs. Skokie writer Ellen Blum Barish shares these thoughts on the effort of creating the perfect holiday card.  

This is the time of year that people like to express themselves the old fashioned way: by the U.S. mail. The choices are overwhelming. There's the charitable or brand name holiday greeting card. The glossy photo of the children, or the dog, inserted into a card with a built-in frame. The year-in-summary letter. The homemade card. The electronic card. The electronic card with attached digital photo.

My favorite holiday greeting to send is the annual family photo copied onto card stock with a pithy sentiment typeset inside. What's not to like about opening an envelope to see friends or family members as they change hair, height and haute couture.

Every year, from late summer to late fall, every photo taken of my husband, daughters and me is a candidate for the cover of the card. There's the Barish family on a dock as the sun is setting by the ocean. Under a tree in an apple orchard. Dressed in new outfits for the Jewish high holidays.

Seated around an immense pumpkin. In a backyard hammock. If the selection isn't so good that year, we go to the nearest tree, woods or sculpture park to set some up.

For amateur pictures taken by my husband who sets the timer and runs into position, they aren't half bad, or so I'm told. Some friends tell me that they save the cards in their photo albums. This is nice to hear. Especially because I know what it took to get it.

Because behind the smiling faces of my children and my husband and I, blood is boiling. A few years ago, a camera's lens used to offer the chance to ham it up to make Mom laugh. Now that my daughters are in high school and college, pleasing a parent in such an easy way is no longer a worthwhile goal. Add to this the fact that I am a perfectionist about the photo's quality and that neither of these lovely young women is ever pleased with the outcome and you might understand why there's resistance. Which makes it extremely difficult to get a good shot.

But where family photos are concerned, I am a woman obsessed. During the shoot, this translates into all manner of promises and negotiations, all the while my husband standing by, allowing me directional creativity (which he claims is closer to dictatorial creativity) and my daughters looking at their watches and rolling their eyes saying, "Do we have to take an entire roll, mom?" or "I don't like this position," or "Are we done yet?" It is a delicate procedure to insist on cooperation from a group who would rather be anywhere while simultaneously keeping tempers in check to save the photo.

Afterwards, everyone trots off in a huff in different directions to cool down. And when a finalist is selected and the cards are made and ready for their mass mailing, someone is unhappy. Someone's face is partially obstructed. Someone's hair isn't right. Someone's expression is off. Sometimes there are even tears. And this is far from a pretty picture.

The truth is, every member of my family detests the experience.

Except me, of course. I am unbending about this annual ritual and will probably continue to be until we no longer live together as a family. I'm thinking of it as an investment, banking on the idea that later, much later, these photos which hang on the wall in our living room might be considered valuable property. This, of course, would come long after I'm gone.

It is a thankless job to be the family photo archivist, but clearly those of us who are don't do it for the thanks.

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